Sunday, 10 October 2010

Reading Askeu, or What Are We Asking of Our Screens?

- not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).  his own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them - jorge luis borges - from 'funes the memorious' -

I've just started the year's teaching at a couple of universities, and on both courses I'm tutoring 1st year modules which function as introductions to English Studies at a graduate level.  Something I learned while teaching last year is that, particularly for these kind of seminars, terminology can be tremendously empowering.  I'm sure I can annoy the hell of out new students by constantly pinning down the use of various terms, or using what must seem overlong or complex words in 'simple' discussions, but once it clicks, and the student, grasping for the right word to explain what they mean in an argument, turns automatically to some collection of syllables which they would have balked at the week before, then some of the value becomes apparent.  The right word doesn't just give us a way to talk about things, it gives us a way to think about things.  English students, for instance, can't help but learn the loaded differences between the academic use of 'book' or 'text,' and both of these terms become incredibly rich over years of study, fundamentally affecting the way such students think about objects which are read.  But dense language is certainly not just for undergrads - 'e-book,' 'e-reader,' 'electronic text,' 'teleread,' etc. etc. etc., the public sphere has been adding a diffuse and steadily growing (as in expanding and deepening) vocabulary and repository of metaphors to the digital book debate for nearly 30 years now.

I wrote about the QWERTY keyboard a few weeks back, and talked about the reasons for its creation (mostly the need to prevent groups of letters frequently used in series - like i-n-g - being located too close together on typewriters as they jammed up the machine if struck in quick succession) and its continued use despite superior alternatives (e.g. the Dvorak keyboard).  The difficulty of changing from one system to another (teaching the new mode of typing, switching millions of keyboards, etc.) represents a greater effort of will and resources than the proportional perceived benefits of the switch (which, with the Dvorak layout, means maybe a 10% increase in speed in competent typists).  The continued dominance of the QWERTY keyboard in numerous territories is a case of 'path dependence' (def. - past decisions affecting the range of present day options, even if the strictures on those past decisions are no longer relevant), and one which I saw as useful, if only by metaphor, to bring to the discussion of ebooks and electronic texts.

Another useful term we might want to keep in mind for such discussions, one which also happens to be a variation on path dependence, can be found in Timothy Taylor's The Artifical Ape, where he outlines another manifestation of past decision making which continues to be felt in objects in the present, a word the richness of which I think should be put to more extensive use: skeuomorph.  The word refers to

special features of objects, and special types of objects, where the function is more to suggest than to deliver…Simply put they are carryovers from an older technology or way of doing things that had value, and are retained as a semblance, and expectation…The technological reason for the feature has gone, but you expect it - it completes the object.  Open a wine bottle and pour out the wine.  Notice that the bottom is dented-in, in a shape known in France as le voleur ('the thief'), because without it there would be more wine.  When wine bottle were blown, there was no alternative: the molten glass bubbled out like a long balloon with a rounded end; this base was then flipped inside out as the bottle was set down to cool, producing the level circumferential basal ring that would allow the bottle to stand upright…[;] the dent in the base has become a skeuomorph.  Le voleur remains because we expect it to be there (Taylor, The Artificial Ape, pp152-153)

Skeuomorphs differ from path dependence because the features that remain in the contemporary object are true vestiges, serving little or no function, despite unrestricted options (for more examples of skeuomorphs see here and here).  Taylor demonstrates the usefulness of such vestigial design quirks for archaeological study in his outline of a 5000 year old village ceramics industry in Germany which produced ceramic cups with omphalos bases and 'riveted' handles.  An omphalos base, in gold work, resembles le voleur - gold is beaten into a hemispherical shape and then the base is pushed in to form the basal ring on which the bowl sits.  To Taylor, that the ceramics of the German village would feature such bases, as well as ornamental 'riveted' handles, demonstrates, even without the presence of metal in that village's archaeological record, that gold versions would have once been present in the village for the potter to imitate (Taylor's colleague disagrees, suggesting that the skeuomorphic features result from aspirational imitation of a richer culture nearby, see discussion on p154 of The Artifical Ape.  Regardless, the object's detailing suggests a knowledge of metal work in the village which, lacking other evidence, could only be inferred from this feature).

I'm certainly not the first to suggest that page-turn effects, typographical quirks, and even the continued existence of pagination in ebooks are skeuomorphic (see, for instance, this comment at if:book, or the discussion of Apple's obsession with skeuomorphic tics in its software here and here).  But I do think that the term is more neglected than it should be in discussions of digital reading; it's not only useful, but a rather wonderful word to say after all.

Why do we feel that we should read in particular ways, or rather why is there such a widespread resistance to new forms of reading?  Are pages, for instance, a vital part of the process, or are they skeuomorphs?  No longer needed on a screen (why not just keep scrolling down?), do we keep them because certain kinds of reading are bereft without them, or because we're a generation who think that the object, physical or virtual, just isn't complete unless divided by the (usually) arbitrary strictures of a particular edition?  

(I'm aware that this argument doesn't really apply to e-ink screens, such as those found in the Kindle, which can only display a certain amount of information before they need to be refreshed.  But note that the only reason such an object was ever created was because people wanted something book-like; in terms of practicality a steadily scrolling screen is no more or less pressing, in terms of the technological evolution of reading devices, than something with pagination comparable to a physical book.  The demand comes from expectations of a certain kind of reading experience, a demand which needed to be met before the idea of e-reading would even have a chance of wide-spread adoption.  All of which tells us something else about skeuomorphs (and ourselves) of course: things feel right (read: 'safe') when they're familiar, hence their frequent persistence).

If we recognise that our reading prejudices are attached to skittish skeuomorphic impulses (rather than a genuine benevolent concern) then they (should) become a lot harder to inflict on generations which haven't grown up expecting such features to be in place (and wouldn't consider the objects to be incomplete or defective if they were not present).  Will anyone born in the last five years really miss a hokey page-turn animation when they first come to read Pride and Prejudice for their English class?  And are they more likely to see value in referencing pages (different in each edition) over some undoubtedly-soon-to-be-created standard for locating specific words and phrases in electronic texts?  I guess our answer depends on existing questions such as how much we really think we're missing without reading Dickens divided up into serialised editions, or how much we think is lost by our not reading The Odyssey on a series of scrolls (or, rather, not experiencing it performed over several days to a rapt audience).  In fact when we consider how much we lose from the original manuscript recordings of The Odyssey - now we have a skeuomorphic expectation for there to be punctuation, spaces between words, and a notable absence of boustrophedon line order - haven't we been kidding ourselves for a while that physical book reading is the 'true' way to read?  Isn't The Odyssey that we receive now just the form that has been most suited to our particular reading culture?  And what's to say that those norms won't change again?  My Vintage edition, lovely as it was to read, wasn't particularly authentic as an object, though it suited my expectations admirably.  Its design vestiges might be as good a way-in as any to thinking about what people are really campaigning to hold on to in their reading practices, as the slavish adherence to skeuomorphic quirks simply favours safety and familiarity over function.


Aaron Dietz said...

I'm always blabbing on about this stuff to people who don't really want to listen. Now I can torture them with a new word. Thank you!

cryurchin said...

@Aaron Glad you enjoyed, and that I managed to pass on an excellent word! It's proved surprisingly easy to work into conversation in the last few weeks...


Post a Comment